How to make sense of US elections

Who elects the US president? Are there only two candidates? What are the key issues? Here are some important questions about the US elections

October 26, 2020 by Anish R M
US elections explainer

Despite its repercussions on global politics, elections in the United States are seldom understood by people outside its borders. Even less understood is how and why the two-party system is so well entrenched. There are two main candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, representing the two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, respectively. But what is the system behind this ritual?

With less than two weeks away from the presidential election, here is what you need to know about what goes behind it and what is happening in the upcoming election season. 

  1. How is a US president elected?

Unlike most other nations with a presidential system, popular vote is not always the decisive factor in electing the head of state in the US. Citizens vote for a panel of delegates, pledged to a particular candidate or party in their respective State. These delegates constitute the electoral college which exists for the sole purpose of electing a president. 

Each State is allocated a certain number of delegates, more or less in keeping with their population, although smaller States often get a larger than average delegate count. Barring rare exceptions, delegates are chosen in a first-past-the-post style, which means that the candidate who secures the most number of votes wins all the delegate votes in that State.

The electoral college has been the most controversial aspect of the presidential elections. In 2000, a close contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush resulted in the latter’s victory, even though Gore won the national popular vote by a margin of over half a million. This happened simply because Bush was declared as the winner of a major “swing state”, Florida, with 25 delegates, by around 500 votes. This followed the Supreme Court intervening in the case and its decision is controversial to this day.

The problem cropped up again in the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump won more electoral college votes, despite losing to his opponent Hillary Clinton by a margin of 2.8 million.

  1. What are “swing States”? 

Because of the first-past-the-post system in the electoral college, US politics has solidified into a rigid two-party system, with little to no chance for third parties. This creates what are called “blue States” and “red States”, based on the colors assigned to the Democratic and Republican parties.

This means that a State, simply because of the voting system, perpetually ends up electing either one of the political parties, no matter how much gains or losses the winning party makes. As of now, 37 of the 50 States have consistently elected candidates from the same party for more than two decades.

The States that do not show such consistency are called “swing States”. Right now, 12 States have consistently swung between parties, with winning candidates securing victory by margins as small as 500 votes among millions. Of these, a handful of States, like Ohio and Florida, have shown extremely close contests with preferences swinging back and forth.

  1. What about third parties?

The biggest criticism against the electoral college is that it benefits bigger parties and pushes out smaller parties. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have shown any interest in changing the system. For instance, despite winning the popular vote by a wide margin but still losing the presidency, Hillary Clinton made no effort to challenge the system.

This has to do with the fact that such a system makes a third option redundant, and pushes people likely to vote for an alternative to either abstain or fall back on either of the two parties. A major outcome of such a system is that turnouts have remained more or less the same for nearly five decades, hovering between 50-55%, with the highest being at 57% in 2008 when Obama was elected.

Add to that, individual State laws do prevent third-party candidates from standing for elections. Most States have regulations for ballot access, determining a candidate’s eligibility to appear on the ballot. The Libertarian Party has been the only third party that has gotten access to ballots in the entire electoral college.

This also affects the chances for alternative political formations to develop and mature, independent of the two-party system. One of the highlights of this year’s presidential campaigns was the promising rise of Bernie Sanders, whose campaign attempted to push the Democrats more towards the left. But the campaign was eventually cornered to make way for the nomination of establishment favorite Joe Biden, thus maintaining a status quo.

  1. Does this mean no alternatives are available?

It needs to be kept in mind that despite the rigidity of the two-party system, the US has witnessed some formidable third party challenges in the past.

Socialist candidates Eugene Debs (1912, 1920) and Robert M. La Follette (1924) were two major third party candidates in US history. La Follette, who was supported by other smaller progressive parties, won 16.6% of the votes and 13 delegates in 1924. This was the best performance for any third-party in the US so far.

More recently, Green candidates Ralph Nader in 2000 (2.9 million votes) and Jill Stein in 2016 (1.5 million votes) emerged as significant and visible third-party options.

This year, two prominent progressive candidates to emerge on the political scene are Gloria La Riva, standing as a candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), and Green candidate Howie Hawkins. The PSL is campaigning on a 10-point program, including demands neither of the two big parties are raising. These include reparations for the Africa American community, full rights for all immigrants, shutting down US military bases and taking over the stolen wealth of banks and corporations.

  1. What are the key issues to come up in this election?

The economic and healthcare crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic is set to be the most prominent issue in the current election season. Issues like spiraling unemployment, access to healthcare, reopening of schools and workplaces, and federal aid for pandemic response are some of key issues identified by different surveys.

PSL candidate Gloria La Riva, while speaking to Peoples Dispatch, said that neither of the candidates was proposing any radical healthcare plan with even Democratic candidate Joe Biden supporting private health care. Similarly, she pointed out that neither candidate has talked about how to create employment, or about US military spending, which crosses USD 1 trillion annually (including nuclear spending). It has been left to progressive parties and peoples’ movements to take up such issues.

Nonetheless, the pandemic and issues around it has led to the dipping popularity of the Trump administration. An ABC News-Ipsos poll estimated that just around a third of US voters (35%) are satisfied with the administration’s pandemic response.

Trump’s recent brush with COVID-19 has also affected perceptions about his seriousness regarding the pandemic, with over 72% responding that he was not serious enough about COVID-19 spread. The poll also found that over four out of every five respondents are now afraid of contracting COVID-19, including 70% of Republican voters.

Questions of racial justice, police violence, and workers rights have been at the centrestage of US politics recently. Workers’ strikes have exponentially increased across sectors over workplace reopenings, wage cuts, and unionization during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ongoing nationwide protests against racial discrimination and police violence, triggered by the custodial killing of George Floyd in May, has become a key issue too as it has led to a wave of popular organizing around issues of healthcare, rent and poverty, among other issues. The organizers of these movements have refused to let these issues be subsumed under the two-party framework.